Shopping Lists

Further thoughts on the Trimbur Carnival.

I teach with lists, not shopping lists, but rather lists in general as a means of understanding the difference between form and content. Unlike Trimbur’s “student-centered” approach of simply directing the students to a text and asking them what they think, my exercise is carefully framed. I don’t explore “how to write a list.” I explore how to avoid writing a list.

First framing question: “How many people in this classroom read the telephone book for fun?” Then, I open discussion of the reasons why/methods for using a directory list such as a phone book. The ultimate resolution is generally to agree that lists are useful if you know what you are looking for, and much less so if you are looking for stimulation—though sometimes they make an effective brainstorming tool. The arc (on the first day of class) is to work towards interviewing a classmate and then reporting the findings in an “introduction memo” which the rest of the class might find interesting. Using lists as a gateway allows me to get them to not just spit out a boring set of facts in a form that follows a typical questionnaire—to look more deeply for patterns, motifs, and organizing strategies to introduce a person without being boring.

During the second class, the students swap papers and read memos totally unrelated to them. They read another person’s introduction of a third person. We try to examine just how the piece of writing has been composed and make judgements on how effective this particular effort to avoid presenting a list has been.

Later, during the unit on composing instructions, we discuss the parameters for effective lists, such as chunking instruction groups together and optimizing their length. Visual elements are involved as well: How should a list be placed on a page so that people can follow it effectively? At no time have I had a student complain about the simplicity or relevance of lists (grocery or otherwise) in a class in technical communication, because my forays into lists are always carefully framed. But this is of course, a special case of “writing studies”.” I really liked Jenny’s brainstorming on just what “writing studies” might do:

– emphasize an historical understanding of how certain genres, expectations, and literacy customs came to form in the ways that they have

– help students to understand the connections between cultural ideology and literacy (the English-only debates, for example)

– provide a knowledge of developing media and the cultural changes that such media are creating (think Web 2.0)

I do discuss the history of the list as a primal writing technology on the first day of this class. Then, we talk about poetry/metrical speech as the first improvement on the list—allowing people to remember longer lists. Then, we talk about emplotment—the imposition of an arc or story to give the information a beginning, middle and end.

As for the connection with cultural ideology, given the use of lists to track possessions and to defend property through the signature, that sort of dovetails nicely. I’m not currently doing that, but now that you mention it, I might easily go there in the future. Jenny’s third point, however, is the one that I’ve been giving the most thought to lately.

I have been using primarily technology related presentations/issues to discuss both the formal implications (is their proposal/report persuasive and does it provide a well grounded argument) and the wider cultural ramifications of these new changes in the media/intellectual property landscape. By doing this, they see the generic document forms played out across a variety of transmission technologies.

I am less sanguine about using the classroom pulpit to pursue fully the critical importance of the non-formal aspects of cultural critique. It is, after all, a workplace preparatory class. I would feel remiss if I didn’t introduce the issues (spectrum management, net neutrality, intellectual property, etc) but I do not feel good about spending too much time on the content; I leave it for the students themselves to pursue if they are interested. Rather, I use the presentations by Lessig and others primarily as examples of well crafted formal discourses. They really pull double duty for me.

So far, I think it’s working. Understanding that video presentations have many of the same genre/sectional markers as written documents (particularly in the case of Lessig) helps them translate their projects onto paper (at least for the time being). For the future, the same strategies seem deployable in composing in other media.

But only if they are framed effectively. If a teacher simply handed me a grocery list I’d be confused too. To be fair, I have not seen how the list is deployed in Trimbur’s textbook. He probably thought he had sufficiently framed the inquiry, but given the typical student reading pattern (about one word in eight) they probably missed that part. This is why I have shifted to using primarily non-text examples to teach composing texts. The transgression forces them to engage with the form in a more abstract sense instead of simply a form in which their job is to fill in the blanks.